In this April 13, 2011 photo, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Yesterday, at a House Budget Committee hearing entitled “War on Poverty: A Progress Report,” Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee used her allotted time to try to discredit the sole Democratic witness, Sister Simone Campbell. Sister Simone is the executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, but she is more widely known as the leader of the Nuns on the Bus.

“You said you come to this hearing today as a Catholic sister living under Christian tradition,” said Representative Blackburn. “Would it be fair for this Committee to question the validity of your testimony, knowing that the Vatican has reprimanded the Leadership Conference on the Women Religious and singled out your organization for only promoting issues of social justice, and being silent on the right to life from conception to natural death?”

Sister Simone replied that the exchange with the Vatican was about “theological struggles, not about our engagement in political activity, and our organization works on economic issues.”

Republican Chairman Paul Ryan seemingly admonished Representative Blackburn, albeit indirectly, telling Sister Simone, “Speaking as a Catholic who usually disagrees with you on some of these issues, I think you are very well within Catholic social teachings to give the testimony that you gave here today.”

It was one of many bizarre moments during a hearing that Washington Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott described perfectly to his Republican colleagues when he said, “This hearing is surreal.… You are not living in the real world.”

Indeed, one of the three Republican witnesses—University of Maryland professor Doug Besharov, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Social and Individual Responsibility Project—was there to discuss incentives to help people get out of poverty. So it was surprising that he was unsure what the current federal minimum wage pays.

“The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, correct?” said New York Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, trying to pivot to a discussion about good jobs as the best anti-poverty program.

“Uh, it could be,” said Besharov. “I—I don’t know the exact number. It’s around there.”

Texas Republican Congressman Roger Williams described himself as “a job creator” who has owned and operated his family car business for forty-two years.

“Don’t you think a lot of this debate is the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth and we need to get back to that?” Williams asked Sister Simone.

“I practiced family law for eighteen years in Oakland, California. I found with low-income families that the biggest cause of family break up was economic stressors,” said Sister Simone. “So I think the most important piece we could do to support families would be to raise the minimum wage.”

“Or you could do away with the minimum wage,” said Williams.

Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble described his “own religious upbringing”—his father was a minister; three of his brothers and one son are all pastors.

“Whoa,” said Sister Simone, impressed.

“Christianity is all about serving the poor,” Representative Ribble told her. “What is the church doing wrong that it had to come to the government to get so much funding?”

Sister Simone said the need for government assistance is more about the “dimension of the issue.” She noted a Bread for the World study that calculated the funds religious institutions would have had to raise if the food stamp cuts proposed in last year’s House Republican budget had been implemented. She said “every church, synagogue, mosque and house of worship in the United States” would have needed to raise $50,000 in additional monies—every year, for ten years.

“We have a limitation in our capacity to do that,” said Sister Simone.

“Your capacity is the same as our capacity,” Representative Ribble argued.

These head-scratching moments aside, I found the entire frame of the hearing as laid out by Chairman Ryan to be seriously flawed. Ostensibly, it was to examine the most effective ways to fight poverty as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty next year.

“Government focuses too much on inputs,” said Chairman Ryan. “We focus on how much money we spend. Instead, we should focus on results.”

It’s a claim he has made consistently since last year. But it’s Representative Ryan and his conservative colleagues who are constantly bemoaning the amount of money spent on anti-poverty programs—money we “confiscate” from taxpayers, said Indiana Republican Congressman Todd Rokita—while dismissing the data that show how effective these programs can be.

Indeed there are many poverty scholars who have found positive outcomes in both the short- and long-term for children and adults who participate in anti-poverty programs. Research from Arloc Sherman (here, here, here and here), Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson and organizations like Children’s HealthWatch—to name just a few—reveal that these programs contribute to improved health, higher achievement and greater financial security, for example.

But if Chairman Ryan wanted to hear more about results, Sister Simone certainly obliged.

“In 2011, government benefits lifted a total of 40 million people out of poverty,” she testified. “While Social Security has the largest impact of any single program, means-tested programs such as SNAP, SSI and the EITC lifted almost 20 million Americans, including 8 ½ million children, out of poverty.”

She also noted that “poor babies in the 1960s and 1970s who were fortunate enough to live in counties served by the Food Stamp Program…were healthier as adults and were more likely to finish high school” than poor babies who lived in counties that didn’t yet have the program. (They also scored higher on a “self-sufficiency” index that included adult outcomes like earnings, income and decreases in welfare participation.)

And yet the House Republican proposal to cut $20.5 billion from SNAP (food stamps) over ten years would lead to approximately 5 million people being eliminated from the program, and would increase federal and state health care costs by $15 billion for diabetes alone over ten years. Further, Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland noted that the Republican House budget would cut “$810 billion from base Medicaid funding” and that “Medicaid [would] be cut by one-third in 2023.”

“It simply adds insult to injury—and tortures the English language—to pretend that deep cuts to food and medical assistance programs will somehow ‘strengthen’ that safety net and help people in poverty,” said Representative Van Hollen.

The star witness for the Republicans was Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Anderson’s main message was that she saw time limits and the work requirement as the keys to the “success” of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program created by welfare reform in 1996. She touted her own data from Wisconsin—that “90 percent of the people left the program—and have continued to stay off.” She urged Congress to implement work requirements and time limits in all anti-poverty programs.

But the twists in the hearing just kept coming. Wisconsin Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore revealed that she was on welfare in 1985 and worked for the Department of Employment Relations where she was trained by Secretary Anderson.

“She was brilliant, and of course, that was contagious, I’m brilliant now,” said Representative Moore.

But Representative Moore took issue with Secretary Anderson’s data and her description of TANF as a success in Wisconsin.

“Yes, the rolls did fall by 93 percent, because they just threw people off,” said Moore. “Many of the [people who left] did not find jobs. I tried to require that they do data and statistics—which they didn’t want to do—because they didn’t want to confirm that.”

Moore also noted that because the creation of TANF in 1996 made cash assistance much harder to obtain, the number of people living on $2 a day or less—the definition of poverty in developing nations, according to the World Bank—has doubled in the United States.

As the hearing came to a close, Chairman Ryan said, “I think you can tell that the rhetoric is still mired in the status quo.… Hopefully we can get past the status quo, past the rhetoric, and collectively focus on evidence-based solutions.”

But the fact is that there was plenty of evidence offered during the hearing about what works. The chairman just chooses to ignore it.

As Sister Simone testified, “We won’t address [poverty] by ignoring the successes of today’s safety net, but neither is today’s safety net adequate—we need a new commitment to reduce poverty and promote opportunity.”

Get Involved

Immigration Reform: House Republican leadership is leaving for a five-week vacation without introducing an immigration reform bill that provides a pathway to citizenship. Tell your Representative to support reform now.

Wendy’s Week of Action, August 3–11: Of the five largest fast food corporations in the country—McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell and Wendy’s—Wendy’s stands alone as the one that has refused to join the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s Fair Food Program and respect the rights and dignity of farmworkers in its supply chain. Get involved in the Week of Action here.

Stand with Richmond, California: The City of Richmond has demanded that the big banks sell underwater mortgages to the city so that it can do principal reductions and keep homeowners in their homes. The city is willing to use eminent domain to purchase the mortgages, if necessary. In 2012, Richmond lost $264 million to the foreclosure crisis, and 46 percent of all residential mortgages are still underwater. Tell Wall Street to sell the loans to Richmond so homeowners can remain in their homes.

Older Americans Act (OAA) Funding & Reauthorization: The OAA provides funding for critical senior services such as meals, transportation and caregiver support. It is overdue for reauthorization and has also taken a hit from sequester. Tell your senators and congressman to protect and strengthen the OAA.

Opportunity: Help for Homeless Grant Program is launching a new Help for Homeless Grant Program to support not-for-profit homeless service providers in the United States. The grant program will support the programmatic or operational expenses of organizations directly benefiting the homeless population, with grants ranging from $500 to $10,000 per organization (totaling up to $100,000). Information, including grant criteria, eligibility requirements and application instructions, can be found at

Clips and other resources (compiled with Samantha Lachman)

Fast Food, Low Pay,” Mark Bittman

“‘Nun on the Bus’ Shows Congress How the Safety Net Improves Lives”, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

SNAP Benefits Will Be Cut for All Participants in November 2013,” Stacy Dean and Dottie Rosenbaum

We Can’t Survive on $7.25,” Lauren Feeney

Social Security is the Most Effective Anti-Poverty Program in the U.S., in One Chart,”

Southern Leaders Opt to Exclude 2.7M From Health Care,” Keith Griffith

Race: Beyond Black and White,” Melissa Harris-Perry (VIDEO)

Emergency Summit on Urban Violence,” Melissa Harris-Perry (VIDEO)

From #Nerdland to Congress?” Greg Kaufmann

Why Do the People Raising Our Children Earn Poverty Wages?” E. Tammy Kim

There’s No Housing Recovery for the Poor,” Joel Kotkin

Cumberland County housing agency feeling sequester pinch,” Bench Laudermilch

Upward Mobility Is No Less Common in ‘Red’ America,” David Leonhardt

House Plan on Food Stamps Would Cut 5 Million From Program,” Ron Nixon

Amid bankruptcy, Detroit has a bigger problem,” Irwin Redlener

Teen Moms Get ‘No Stigma, No Shame’ Pep Talk,” Alizah Salario

The McPoverty Calculator,” Sam Schlinkert and Filipa Ioannou

Advocates say poor Ohioans suffering under welfare-to-work changes,” Harlan Spector

SNAP Enrollment Remains High Because the Job Market Remains Weak,” Chad Stone, Jared Bernstein, Arloc Sherman, Dottie Rosenbaum

GOP budget’s war on the poor,” Representative Chris Van Hollen and Representative Barbara Lee

Studies/Briefs (summaries by Aviva Stahl)

Defining diaper need and its impact on child health, ” by Megan V. Smith, DrPH, MPH; Anna Kruse, MPH; Alison Weir, PhD, JD; and Joanne Goldblum, MSW. Pediatrics, 132(2), July 29, 2013.  This peer-reviewed study, published in Pediatrics, is the first to quantify diaper need and explore the potential psychosocial impact of diaper need on mothers. Of the 877 African-American and Hispanic low-income mothers polled, about 30 percent reported having insufficient access to diapers. Almost 8 percent of women reported stretching diapers when they were in short supply, which is known to cause diaper rashes and urinary tract infections. The study also found that diaper need “was an even stronger predictor of [parent] mental health than food insecurity”; women without an adequate supply of diapers were much more likely to have poor or uncontrolled mental health issues (60.7 percent versus 39.4 percent). Diaper need thus has short-term and long-term consequences for infants, as high levels of stress or depression among parents can put children at greater risk of social, emotional and behavioral problems.

Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment, ” by Madeline Neighly and Maurice Emsellem. The National Employment Law Project, 2013. Since 9/11, FBI background checks for employment have increased six-fold, with 17 million checks performed in 2012. Yet many of these background checks rely on inaccurate or incomplete information. The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.8 million workers are subject to background checks with faulty information, potentially prejudicing the job searches of 600,000 workers without due cause. Unsurprisingly, people of color are particularly burdened by these faulty checks due to the high rate at which people of color are arrested and the disproportionate number of those arrests that never lead to conviction; the study found that in one program, African Americans “were more than four times as likely as whites to appeal an inaccurate FBI record.” The report calls for the FBI to track down missing information and release more accurate and complete records, as is already required for firearm background checks.

Nonstandard Work Schedules and the Well-being of Low Income Families,” by Maria E. Enchautegui. The Urban Institute, Paper 26, July 31, 2013.  This report examines which Americans are most likely to work nonstandard schedules (6 pm–6 am) and considers possible implications for family life. It is the poorest and most insecure workers—such as security guards, restaurant staff, laborers, nurses and home aids—who work the most nonstandard hours; according to the report, “forty percent of full-time workers toiling outside the traditional daytime weekly schedule bring home paychecks that put them in the lowest wage quartile.” African Americans, women, the foreign-born and those without a college degree are the most likely to stay in nonstandard work, and as a result spend less time with their children or maintain a household routine. Paid sick days and vacation laws, flexible scheduling and better childcare and transport options would provide nonstandard workers with a better quality of life while allowing them to maintain their jobs.

Various supports for low-income families reduce poverty and have long-term positive effects on families and children,” by Arloc Sherman, Danilo Trisi and Sharon Parrott. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 2013. Despite ongoing budget cuts, public programs still play an important role in lifting people out of poverty. This report examines the impact of federal assistance programs, including Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Child Tax Credit, SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid and others, on reducing hardship and facilitating access to low-cost health care. They found that in 2011, public programs lifted 40 million people out of poverty, including 9 million children. The state safety net still plays an important role, but it is shrinking. According to the report, “between 1984 and 2004, the average value of government assistance, including non-cash benefits, to people with virtually no other income plummeted, falling by 38 percent (after adjusting for inflation) for single parents and by 41 percent by families experiencing homelessness.” The shift to safety net programs that “promote work” is also examined in detail by the authors.

States at Work: A Progressive State Agenda to Give Millions of Americans a Pathway to the Middle Class,” by Karla Walter, Tom Hucker and David Madland with Nick Bunker and David Sanchez. Center for American Progress Action Fund, March 2013. As the authors of this report point out, the economy is not serving most Americans: unemployment has been at a sustained high, typical household income has stagnated and “the likelihood that a child born poor will rise into the middle class has declined significantly over recent decades.” This report highlights the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s “best thinking” on policies that will help to protect and strengthen the middle class—including over 100 specific reforms—and also describes the best practices already in place in particular states. The report is split into eight broad categories: “improving job quality,” “ensuring civil rights are respected,” “reforming the tax code,” “stabilizing the house market,” “ensuring affordable rental housing,” “ensuring affordable quality health care for all,” “rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure” and “strengthening local communities.”

Vital Statistics

Impact of public policy, 2011: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre-welfare reform): sixty-eight for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: twenty-seven for every 100 families living in poverty.

Average SNAP benefit, individual: $4.45 per day.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers)

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.  

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Hourly wage needed to lift a family of four above poverty line, 2011: $11.06.

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent. (US Census Bureau 2012)

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 23 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children, 37 percent of American Indian children, 34 percent of Hispanic children and 14 percent of both Asian and Pacific Islander and non-Hispanic White children.

Deep poverty (below half the poverty line, less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, including more than 15 million women and children. Up from 12.6 million in 2000, an increase of 59 percent.

African-American poverty rate: 27.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.8 percent.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than one in three Americans.

Children below twice the poverty level: 45 percent, 32.7 million children.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

Quote of the Week

“Have more people who are going through these programs at the table. Not after both [chambers] have already voted. Invite us to the table, have us sit there, and you hear my story, and you understand. Walk in my shoes. It’s easy for people to sit back and judge me, without even asking me.”
   —Tianna Gaines-Turner, plea to Congress, on Melissa Harris-Perry

“Clips and other resources” compiled with Samantha Lachman. “Studies/Briefs” summaries written by Aviva Stahl.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company and AlterNet. You can e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.

Obama just announced a new plan to create jobs, but what does his bargain reveal about inequality in America?